Alexander Cockburn and I met in the 1980s, when we shared places on a panel in Detroit, where the topic was the latest murders of Catholic priests by Latin American death squads. Alex was talking about the horrors of US foreign policy. I was talking about the horrors of US media coverage of US foreign policy. We were sufficiently in sync that our mutual friend, brilliant music writer and thinker Dave Marsh, came up at the end of the evening and. presuming that we were comrades long-standing, told us we really should take the show on the road.
We did, more or less, appearing frequently together over the years. But most of our time together was spent at my home in Madison, Wisconsin, where Alex was a frequent guest. He would pull up in a great big American car, the trunk packed with favored libations, new books and the facsimile machine he used—even after the Internet had its moment—to send columns to The Nation. (Alex regularly proved that his knowledge of history, his memory and his veteran reporter’s knack for asking the right people the right questions could be the superior of even the most powerful search engine. Eventually, however, he did with Jeffrey St. Clair develop a politically potent website, CounterPunch.)
Alex, who has died too young at age 71 in Bad Salzhausen, Germany, loved writing. He loved it so much that he met his deadlines even as a two-year battle with cancer progressed toward its final stages. Alex’s commitment to the craft—to the radical power of the word—extended far beyond his own contribution. He poked, prodded and inspired the rest of us. When I was working on an article at my home computer, he would lean over me and make suggestions. Invariably, Alex wanted to see a paragraph added on some new evil done by a corporation, some third-party candidate who had not gotten enough attention or some third-world cause that had gotten even less attention. Alex’s suggestions did not always fit where he proposed that I add them, and I asked them about this once.
“Sometimes you just have to get the story out,” he said, “anywhere you can.”
But, of course, Alex never just got the story out. His prose, honed during an Anglo-Irish childhood when he learned at the side of the master—his father Claud, the great radical British journalist of mid-century who lent him the title of his column, “Beat the Devil”—never failed. Alex knew how good he was. He knew that he could take readers where other writers could not, to the fields of India where Coca-Cola was stealing water from peasants, to the barricades of neglected labor battles in Austin, Minnesota, and Toledo, Ohio; to “The City” of London where the Libor scandal now unfolds. There were times when the going got rough; Alex’s radicalism was genuine, and he could offend not just foes on the right but friends on the left. He parted company with mainstream liberals on issues ranging from gun control to global warming.